March 27, 2022

Gogol: A Surrealist Author between Russia and Ukraine

Gogol: A Surrealist Author between Russia and Ukraine
Gogol: Expert writer, amateur facial hair grower. Too bad we left him off our list. Moller's famous portrait of Gogol, public domain.

In my time writing for Russian Life, I haven't been shy about my general disdain for Russian literature. I find most of it bleak and dull; I have little patience for Tolstoy's ramblings or Dostoyevsky's fraught debates. I love Russian history and art, but whenever I've had the chance to dive into these great works, I've given up after the first few hundred pages, letting Wikipedia, Sparknotes, or my classmates' summaries fill me in. That's always been good enough for me. 

The exception for me, however, is Gogol.

Nikolai Gogol was a Russian writer active between the 1830s and 1852. This was the beginning of Russia's art scene: a century after Peter the Great had created his new European-style capital and his descendants had begun patronizing the arts, Russian literature, music, and visual art hit its stride and began producing original works that can stand proudly alongside anything else from the time. 

Alexander Pushkin was perhaps the first great Russian writer, active just before Gogol. But Pushkin is squarely a romantic: his stories focus on pastoral romances, patriotic sacrifice, and melodramatic honor, all imbued with traditional Russian mores and folkloric motifs. It's all a bit saccharine, even if his skills are outstanding. Take, for instance, his novel Eugene Onegin, which is made up of one hundred sonnets. It takes a veteran poet to pull that off.

Nikolai Gogol is no Pushkin, but that's to his benefit.

Gogol’s work, mostly novels and short stories, is at the same time surreal, biting, and very humorous. While Gogol supported tsarism and was himself a patriot, he found a good deal of fodder for his work in officious, middle-class St. Petersburg civil servants, whose overeducation, self-importance, and menial work duties take center stage in Gogol’s stories.

Four of Gogol’s works are very well remembered. The Nose sees a Peterburg administrator’s schnoz jump off his face one day and assume his role at a government office, apparently doing a pretty good job. In the humorous ghost story The Overcoat, a low-paid and impoverished clerk saves for months to buy a new overcoat, and his life instantly improves thanks to it. Almost immediately, he is mugged late at night, and his precious overcoat is taken. He soon dies, and his spirit haunts the streets of St. Petersburg, taking innocent people’s coats from them.

While these stories are bleak, tragicomic, and creative in their own right and in a way that is somehow uniquely Russian, two of Gogol’s books truly stand out and have become undisputed classics. The Government Inspector (which is actually a play, of course) takes place in an anonymous provincial town, one of countless others throughout the Russian Empire. The town’s self-assured mayor and his overly-serious cronies are anxiously anticipating the arrival of an imperial inspector any day, so when a cosmopolitan-looking man arrives at the town’s boarding house, they assume him to be the high-ranking official they were waiting for. As the eager townsfolk put the visitor through lavish ceremonies, balls, feasts, and tours, each more lavish and ridiculous than the last, the visitor plays along, even as the reader knows he’s nothing but a rookie civil servant who just happened to be in the area. As the interloper leaves, the actual government inspector arrives. The impostor makes a fool of the townsfolk and sticks them with a lengthy bill.

One of Gogol’s later works, Dead Souls, is perhaps his most subversive. In it, a young businessman, Chichikov, seeks to make a fortune through an ingenious and creative scheme. Chichikov goes to several low nobles and offers to purchase the title to any dead serfs from landowners for a small fee, as, until the next census would occur (likely not for years), the serfs were, legally, still alive, and therefore taxable as an asset. The landowners, eager to get rid of a tax burden and happy to take some of Chichikov’s cash, eagerly agree, and Chichikov soon accumulates hundreds of serfs, becoming extremely well-to-do while not actually being any better off than before. Dead Souls is not only a mockery of the archaic feudal system in imperial Russia and a humorous poke at bureaucratic rigidity and self-promoting entrepreneurs; it also stereotypes Russian landowners, as each of Chichikov’s customers is a caricature of a Russian archetype. Who, then, are the dead souls: the unfortunate serfs, or the frittering nobles? There’s a question for a literature class.

In a way, Gogol laid the groundwork for twentieth-century absurdist and surrealist authors, like Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, and Tom Stoppard, whose stories mixed bureaucratic boredom with whimsical fantasy to show just how strange our everyday world really is. His humorous satires and ridiculous plots were far ahead of their time, and, unlike other stars of Russian literature, his work is extremely readable and usually relatively brief. I can recommend him wholeheartedly.

But Gogol's legacy isn't all in the domain of literature classes. Russia's recent invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated that he has a political side, too.

Gogol was born in 1809 in Poltava, then part of the Russian Empire. Today, however, that land is part of Ukraine. And even though Gogol moved in the high literary circles of St. Petersburg and Moscow, Ukraine has been eager in recent years to highlight his birthplace, even as Russia has sought to keep his memory for themselves.

Fortunately, Gogol's wit is universal, and you don't have to be neither Russian nor Ukrainian to appreciate his work.  And I'd be willing to bet that Gogol would find some humor in the debate over who he truly belongs to.

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